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Why Visualization Is So Important in Your Math Classroom

3 Min Read

We recently came across a quote by the English writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.” Problem solving in math class requires more than procedural skills. Students must first understand the problem before attempting a solution and explaining their thinking. This can present a challenge in our classrooms.

Bar modeling can be a tool to help teachers and students meet this problem-solving challenge. It is often considered the hallmark of Singapore Math® and can help students “see” the problem by representing known and unknown quantities and their relationships (sounds sneakily algebraic, doesn’t it?).

Let’s consider the following problem:

On Halloween, Logan ended up with seven fewer pieces of candy then Kristin. They have 55 pieces of candy altogether. Find the number of pieces Logan has.

Students who don’t understand the problem may mistakenly subtract based upon the word “fewer.” For those of us who remember algebra, we can represent the problem this way: 2x + 7 = 55. Algebraically, we would isolate the variable and solve for x (x = 24; Logan has 24 pieces of candy). Although perfectly acceptable, the algebraic solution is abstract and developmentally inaccessible to most elementary students, yet they still need to solve this type of problem. Bar modeling can make it more accessible.

Let’s draw a bar for Logan and a bar for Kristin. At this point, I’m not quite sure how long to draw the bars, but I know that Logan’s will be shorter because he has fewer pieces of candy.

Math Vis1

Now let’s use the information in the problem to label the model. I know that Logan has 7 fewer and they have 55 altogether.

Math Vis22

The problem asks us to find the number of pieces Logan has, so we label our question mark and the model is done.

Math Vis3

The bar model has helped us organize the information from the problem, but we still don’t have an answer. Students still need the skills from previous lessons and by now have many strategies to solve 55 - 7 and 48 ÷ 2.

Math Vis6

Bar models also help students gain a deeper understanding of the operations they may need to use rather than simply relying on keywords, usually taken out of context. Math in Focus® sets the stage in kindergarten and first grade for bar modeling by developing number sense, fluency, and part-whole thinking. From second grade onward, the bar modeling strategy helps students organize information—it becomes a graphic organizer for math—in order to “see” the problem, better understand it, and become better problem solvers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Interested in learning more about visualization in Singapore Math®? Register for our webinar on Nov. 13, “Exploring Visualization in Singapore Math®,” presented by Britt Robinson and Christopher Coyne. They’ll demonstrate how the Math in Focus®: Singapore Math® by Marshall Cavendish® series can help students visualize relationships between knowns and unknowns in order to confidently solve word problems.

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